Born-frees hold key to media transformation

The South African media retains many colonial features. Anyone who doubts this only needs to consider Professor Jane Duncan’s research, which showed that in the immediate aftermath of the Marikana massacre only 3% of newspaper articles took the views of striking workers into consideration – and most of that 3% was only concerned with the question of muti. The rest of the articles looked to various elite actors – business, trade union leaders, the police, politicians, nongovernmental organisations, academics and so on.

Duncan’s research shows that, although the media claims to be democratic, it frequently operates to exclude many sectors of society from access to the public sphere. This is not merely a matter of excluding people from access to voice. It is also a matter of the demonisation of, in particular, poor black men who organise themselves to challenge power holders.

There is no easy route to a thoroughgoing transformation of our media. With the important exception of the growth in the African language media, the rise of the internet has seen newspapers’ circulation plummet. When circulation is in free fall advertising declines and owners pressurise editors to look for the markets most attractive to advertisers. This means, given our history, that commercial imperatives push owners to push editors to pander to the white and perhaps emerging black middle-class market. The result of this is that economic rationality trumps concerns relating to justice.

The market entrenches old inequalities. In light of this, it is no surprise that, for many people, the ruling party is an important actor against the untrammelled power of the market.

One reason why the ANC retains popular support – despite its evident decline, disasters such as the Marikana massacre and the steady collapse of Eskom and other institutions – is that for millions of South Africans the ruling party remains their primary bulwark against white power.

This means that the ANC strengthens its hand when it tries to monopolise the debate about race and racism. And when it is able to dominate this debate it is able to misuse it for its own purposes.

This has become very clear in the debate about racism and the media. The ANC is not wrong to raise this issue but it tries to use it to advance its own agenda, which is to move towards more control of the media. To put it in other terms, the ruling party is trying to advance an authoritarian, rather than a democratic, resolution of the media question.

This leaves us in a real quandary – neither the market nor the ANC can be trusted to transform our media. Yet, the emergence of new forms of organisation offers a potential way out of this double bind.

The extraordinary student mobilisation that began in Cape Town against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), and then moved to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, has created waves nationally and internationally. For many years now we have been hearing that the so-called “born-frees” are apathetic. It is now clear that this is not true.

The fact that many young people are not comfortable with the world of party politics does not make them apathetic. It is mostly young people who drive street politics and it has been young people who have risen up in the two most reactionary of the formerly English-speaking white universities.


The question of race and the colonial legacy has been central to this re-emergence of students as an important political force. These young people have made it quite clear that they are no longer willing to accept the normalisation of colonial symbols and practices.

One significant aspect of the new student movement that has escaped many commentators is that it has chosen to remain independent of the ruling party and, for that matter, all political parties. One reason why this decision is significant is that, unlike much of the recent debate on racism in the media, it means that the race debate cannot be captured and instrumentalised by the ruling party for its own purposes.

There is a grave danger that media transformation will be captured by the ANC. Yet there are also real dangers in just leaving transformation to the market.

What the students at UCT and Rhodes University have shown us is that the state and the market don’t have to be the only forces able to drive the direction and pace of social change. The students have mounted a serious challenge to the colonial nature of these institutions.

This recent development offers us fresh insight into the possibilities for breaking with the media status quo. If media consumers, media workers or young journalists can organise themselves as an independent constituency in the same way that students have now done, it is possible that a transformation agenda could be driven outside of the ruling party and against a narrow profit-driven approach to the media.

Some might argue that the Right2Know Campaign has tried to do this already. It is true that the campaign has raised some important issues over the years. Yet, it is an NGO operating in a very circumscribed political space and is not a mass-based organisation. For most young people NGO politics, often white-dominated, is every bit as alienating and unexciting as so much party politics.

The students at UCT lit the flame of a very different kind of politics. It is a youthful politics, a black politics, a politics that understands social media and youth culture, a politics that is irreverent in the face of old forms of authority.

It is to this kind of politics, and the new youthful energies that have so shaken the most reactionary of the liberal universities, that we should refer if we want to think outside of the box when it comes to looking for a new force to take up the question of media transformation.

Imraan Buccus is research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a university study-abroad programme on transformation. This article is written with support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

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Imraan Buccus
Imraan Buccus works from Durban North. academic, columnist, researcher, writer
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